A faulty ‘2020’ vision

The ‘national conversation’ organised by Kevin Rudd shows that Australian left-liberals have more faith in the state than the people.

Guy Rundle

Topics World

‘Describe in 500 words or less the ideas you have to make Australia a better place… Describe how your beliefs have changed over the course of your life.’ These instructions are not part of a university entrance exam, they’re the instructions to the thousand participants in ‘2020’, a conference of the ‘best and brightest’ called by Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, to be held in Canberra this weekend (1).

With participants nominated by the public, yet finally vetted by committee, and questions set to narrow the focus of what may be discussed, ‘2020’ says much about the confusion and anti-democratic nature of Australia’s left-liberal intelligensia (2).

The summit wasn’t mentioned during the election campaign in November 2007, but from the moment of its announcement in the new year it became one of the most talked-about items in the government’s schedule. New prime minister Kevin Rudd’s special adviser, former Melbourne University vice-chancellor Glyn Davis, was put in charge of the event, and nine questions were put forward as central to the event’s considerations, including measures needed to address the challenge of climate change and the future of the arts in Australia. Ten different groups consisting of a hundred people each would meet, with sessions led by such luminaries as John Hartigan, the head of Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd in Australia, and the actress and climate change campaigner Cate Blanchett.

Though the impression of a stellar brain power event was undermined somewhat by the failure of the organisers to consult a calendar and steer clear of Passover – thus necessitating the convening of a bizarrely separate Jewish summit on a different date – the event quickly caught the imagination of Australia’s left-liberal intelligensia, by which I mean a desperate scramble to self-nominate or be nominated.

‘Tall-poppy syndrome’

That is not to say that the event has been without criticism from such quarters. The idea of the state nominating its preferred intellectuals, screening public nominations through hand-picked committees and narrowly setting the questions most pertinent to the country’s future, came under immediate forthright criticism – that there weren’t enough women on the selection committees, a claim quickly followed by matching claims for non-anglo-celtic Australians, indigenous Australians etc etc. Eva Cox, a left-wing economist, spoke for many when she noted that ‘thinking I could be of use, I duly submitted my nomination’ (she didn’t get the nod), and others reported that the event had created an unseemly lobbying frenzy, as desperate chancers made repeated phone calls trying to be one of the 150 or so people to be summoned to the summit without going through the icky nominating process.

Criticism when it came was largely from a section of the right who either genuinely opposed the idea or were pretty certain they wouldn’t get a look-in. The criticism was disfigured by a bitter tone lingering from the 2007 defeat of Conservative prime minister John Howard, whom the right had celebrated as a direct representative of the Australian people, standing against the elites. More reasoned criticism came from Jeff Sparrow, editor of the left magazine, Overland, who noted that ‘it’s far more of a confirmation of the Right’s description of public intellectuals than anything that happened under the last Labor government’ (3).

By and large, these were minority criticisms that were met with a degree of incomprehension and accusations of cynicism. The excitement died down somewhat when the 800 or so public attendees (out of 8,000 nominations) were announced, and it was clear who had missed out. For many letter-writers and talk-radio callers, criticism of ‘2020’ was less about how the state was defining what was to be discussed and who would discuss it; rather, it was an attack on the very idea of excellence itself, that some people might be better doctors/artists or whatever than others. Criticism of the summit was more evidence of that disabling Australian disease, ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – that is, our self-diagnosed tendency to cut exceptional people down to size and/or drive them out of the country. Yet it was the very difficulty that many people had in disentangling the idea of excellence from the manner in which it was used that indicated deep confusion about the concept of excellence in Australian life.

Civilising capitalism

Much of this is due to the particular history of the Australian state, intellectual life and the left. For a century, the framework of Australian intellectual and political life has been dictated by two conditions: firstly, the early willingness of the labour movement to accept state regulation of capitalism as an ultimate goal, endlessly deferring revolution or direct action; and secondly, the thin and late development of a separate intelligensia of any size.

Much of Australia’s political character was set in 1907 by the country’s High Court ‘Harvester’ decision, in which it was ruled that the state had the right and duty to set wage levels that would guarantee a ‘living wage’ supplying workers and their families with ‘frugal comfort’. The decision mandated the establishment of an arbitration commission to set wage levels for every profession in every area of the country. The corollary was that strikes frequently became curtain-raisers of what would then become a protracted legal struggle between unions and employers in the commission.

The political result of this was for the Australian working class to see the state as its ally in restraining the power of employers and a key agent in ‘civilising capitalism’, as the official history of the Australian Labor Party was titled. Though the Communist Party of Australia wielded substantial power within the union movement from the 1930s to the 1960s, the Marxist account of the state as the agent of capital had no purchase on the political imagination.

The lonely intellectuals

Parallel to this key role for the state was the country’s domination by Britain in intellectual life. Until the 1960s, Australia had only six universities, largely focused on undergraduate teaching. The bulk of Australia’s journalists trained on an apprenticeship ‘cadet’ system without completing high school; there was no national theatre; and the country had one of the most repressive censorship systems in the Western world. As a result, Australia was the despair of the small elite who had not departed to London. Unlike the UK, the labour movement had far less room for intellectuals, and deeply-held notions of egalitarianism tipped all the way over into anti-intellectualism.

When this began to change in the 1960s, with substantially increased university and arts funding, it was once again at the hands of the state. This was particularly true of the social-democratic government between 1972 and 1975, led by the most unlikely Australian Labor figure of Gough Whitlam, a Latin-speaking former poet and dandy, with a penchant for arch quips. For the rising boomer generation, intellectual life and the advancement of ideas were so naturally done in partnership with the state – through the appointed commission, the grant, the community-building initiative, and so on – that it virtually became second-nature.

That distinction was sharpened in the late 1980s, when Murdoch’s News Ltd extended its control to 70 per cent of the national press (and 100 per cent in key cities such as Adelaide and Brisbane), and also moved these newspapers substantially in a right-populist direction, damning the ‘elites’ running the country. While Labor prime minister Paul Keating spoke increasingly in the 1990s of the need for ‘excellence’ and funded lucrative artistic fellowships, opposition leader John Howard spoke of the need for the country to be more ‘comfortable and relaxed’ about itself. His 1996 victory and his subsequent decade in power essentially switched the cultural tracks; it was the Labor party that represented the ‘elites’, the conservatives who represented the Aussie ‘battlers’.

When Howard attempted to tinker with causes dear to the ‘battlers’ – for example, his attempt to limit severely central wage fixing and collective bargaining – he was swept from office. Rudd’s election looked like it was simply the return of the ‘natural’ Australian situation, in which the intelligensia could see no other role for themselves than as courtiers to a modest, centre-left government. The Monthly, a magazine of ideas and comment established in the last years of the Howard era by a left-liberal property developer, ran two substantial essays by Rudd in the lead-up to the election and attached itself to his cause (the editor was rewarded with an invitation to the summit). Meanwhile, some of the Monthly‘s writers collaborated in a quick book called Dear Mr Rudd, which expressed social comment and ideas in a courtier-style series of memos to the new government.

No ‘state of independence’

Whatever argument there had been for using the agency of the state at points in Australia’s history, there was little now. Thirty per cent of the country had tertiary education. There are, as the example of the Monthly suggests, a group of wealthy private backers eager to fund debate and ideas and a range of think-tanks; the online revolution had vastly reduced the costs associated with participation in debate. Undoubtedly, part of the political calculus associated with the ‘2020’ set-up was that potential critics – especially intellectuals left in the cold for the best part of a decade – can be easily disarmed with a bit of flattery. Indeed, the event gives the appearance of being a more extended version of Tony Blair’s famous 1997 No.10 cocktail party, in which various hip cultural heroes were drawn in close enough to the Blair magic that several of them remained disorientedly dazed for a couple of years after.

Yet the true cynicism of ‘2020’ is not in the politicking but in its deeper and apparently genuine belief that the state needs to start a ‘national conversation’, in a country with a wide range of monthly magazines, collective websites, think-tanks, festivals and the like. Why did they think this was not already occurring? This was largely because the left-liberal intelligensia has a range of topics – like the creation of an Australian republic and increased ‘reconciliation’ between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians – that the bulk of the population has no deep feelings about.

The conference itself is also a measure of the lack of purpose inherent in the cautious centrist projection of the Rudd government, its outsourcing of its own determination. In key areas, the ‘2020’ conference will be discussing a series of answers (such as getting more doctors and pharmacies into remote areas to deal with the appalling state of aboriginal health) that have been known for years. What is lacking is the will to make it happen and fight the fights – over money, over possible medical immigration, over cultural issues – that need to be fought.

Confirming the right’s prejudices

Amazingly, the left-liberals behind the ‘2020’ conference seem intent on enacting exactly the sort of elite anti-democratic cultural push that the right had, largely falsely, accused them of pursuing during the Howard years. Unwilling to do the hard work of arguing the case for pet issues in the marketplace of ideas, they are taking an easy road which suggests they have little faith that their ideas express anything imporant to the lives of many Australians.

Genuine excellence in all its forms should be supported, but it doesn’t require the state to do it. Indeed, ‘2020’ can be accused of counterfeiting the concept; many of the best Australian thinkers, such as Germaine Greer or Pierre Ryckmans, are absent from the gathering (possibly by choice), while the ‘best and brightest’ includes a range of TV presenters and dim-bulb children of the wealthy and powerful in a manner more likely to encourage servility than free-thinking.

Whether we will get any true account of its successes and failings remains to be seen, as every major Australian media outlet has key representatives attending. Given an opportunity to stand up for free intellectual life, critical independence and a commitment to genuine excellence wherever it may be found, Australia’s left-liberals lack faith both in themselves and in Australia’s people.

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor, and author of The Opportunist: John Howard and the Triumph of Political Reaction, (Melbourne, Black Inc, 2001).

Previously on spiked

Guy Rundle saw the Australian Labor Party on the Rudd to nowhere and he called Jindabyne a guilt-trip from Down Under. He also told the British snobs who look down on Australia to rack off. Catherine Scott wondered if teaching preschoolers about Aboriginal culture makes them more ‘tolerant’. Mark Adnum suggested that Australians celebrated Rabbit-Proof Fence as a way of dealing with colonial guilt. Or read more at spiked issue Australia.

(1) 2020 conference website

(2) Judges abandon Rudd’s summit

(3) Fancy dancers rule in Rudd’s summit, Crikey, 16 April 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today